Friday, February 27, 2015

What’s spring training got to do with port unrest?

I had a history teacher once who linked each decade in the 20th Century with a common theme, a baseball player and often a baseball team that reflected culture and politics of the era.

Babe Ruth, the Roaring ’20s and the New York Yankees, he said, represented the free-flowing capitalism and personal excess that led to both the Great Depression and the shortening of Ruth’s career. Third baseman and devout Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, he said, represented the rise of evangelical Christianity that dominated sports and politics during the 1980s.

Here’s hoping Dr. Linder can one day draw a line between labor issues in America’s pastime and the goods movement industry during the 2010s.

In late March, Major League Baseball will celebrate 20 years since labor problems last forced a work stoppage.

The player’s strike of 1994, which torpedoed a contention season by my Kansas City Royals, stretched into spring training and threatened to ruin 1995 before then U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor stepped in and issued a preliminary injunction against the MLB – ending the strike.

Sotomayor, now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, famously told attorneys in the case, “I hope none of you assumed … that my lack of knowledge of any of the intimate details of your dispute meant I was not a baseball fan. You can’t grow up in the South Bronx without knowing about baseball.”

Truck drivers, even ones who rarely go into a major port, can’t do their jobs for long without learning the difficulties faced by owner-operators at ports.

And because so many imports and exports go through U.S. ports, trucking felt the pinch of work slowdowns at West Coast ports during negotiations between longshore workers and the Pacific Maritime Association.

That’s why so many breathed a sigh of relief after it was announced Feb. 20 that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the PMA had reached an agreement on a five-year labor contract for workers at 29 ports along the West Coast.

Small port drivers at big ports like Long Beach and Los Angeles often must carry out duties of a company driver while not receiving employee pay or benefits. They scuffle for rates against companies who may not play by the same rules.
Port truckers wait in line for repairs to chassis they don’t even own, and fight for rates that don’t always account for long lines and other inefficiencies ports have been trying to solve for decades.

Drivers have been winning recent battles over misclassification as owner-operators.

Immediately following last week’s announcement that the longshore workers contract had been ironed out, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, its port division and the Justice for Port Truck Drivers affiliate organization, signaled that labor issues aren’t fully resolved at the ports just yet.

If the driver classification issues improve, ports and shippers will have cleared a second labor hurdle and calmed some prosperous waters.

Baseball saw revenues increase from $1.4 billion to $9 billion during the peaceful two decades since the 1994 work stoppage.

As the job market grows and economists point to signs of a recovering economy, here’s hope for a rising tide to lift ports, trucking and the U.S. like baseball experienced for the last generation.